Once upon a time, a mermaid, caught in a net, begged a poor fisherman to take her home with him to live. No, he said, I can’t. I am a lousy fisher; I have too many mouths to feed already! But she pleaded over and over: Don’t throw me back!, and finally he relented and carried her home, tucked under his arm (for do you know? Mermaids are quite small in real life).
His wife initially protested, but the mermaid’s charm warmed the woman. The family widened the circle for her; she became the daughter and sister they’d wanted. Most days, the mermaid sat outside, watching silently from a cart (she can’t walk with the fin). She loved to watch people talking, working, playing, singing there in that Italian seaside town.
One day, a traveling carnival came to town. Her human brothers wheeled her to see the sights: sword-swallowers, fire-breathers, trapeze artists, and more! Her imagination soared; the scene reminded her of her ocean home in some way.
When they got home, something clicked: she began to tell stories to her new family. Then, someone invited the neighbors over to listen. Eventually, she became well-known for telling tales of the sea; people would stop their hard labor to come listen for a while.
And you know? In telling the stories of shipwrecks and sea urchins, the mermaid becomes a part of the community. Her stories weave them together.*
Every other Friday, I take a few favorite tales — Aesop, Fifty Famous Stories, or fairytales and fables I’ve collected — to a classroom of sixth graders at Mt. Hope STEAM School. I stand in front of kids who in a year or two will be too cool for me, and I tell stories, then invite them to tell their own. (A reader and writer’s dream!)
A few weeks ago, I told the story of the mermaid — decidedly not the singing crab-Disney/ Hans Christian Anderson version. The students sat in a circle around me while I began to unwind a ball of yarn.
“What happened first?” I asked, and a boy repeated the “Once upon a time” business as I handed him the beginning of the string. “And then?” I asked another girl, unrolling the yarn a couple feet and handing her another part of the string to hold. We continued until we’d created a tangled web — and a couple students corrected us on parts we’d missed. The last boy holding the knot of string said, “That’s the end.”
“Who does the story belong to?” I asked.
“Us?” One boy dared to answer, the string pinched between his finger and thumb.
“And if one of you drops the string, what happens?”
“That part of the story gets skipped.” (Yes, in so many ways.)
“It’s incomplete, right?” I started winding the string back up. We contrasted this tale with other tales we know: John Henry, George Washington and his cherry tree.
“Sometimes, we tell tales to teach each other what’s important. Folk tales do that a lot. Why do we tell George’s story?”
“Because it’s important to tell the truth,” a girl said, pushing her turquoise glasses up her nose.
“Right—and what’s important to the person who first told The Little Mermaid?”
“Why?” I probed, curious what they’d say.
“Because when the mermaid started to tell stories, she kind of became human.”
I did a writerly smile: yes. I didn’t even plan this part — I just got to enjoy the moment.
See, I was thinking as I left that day, the string in my coat pocket, what we’re doing here is more than telling each other stories, building confidence for public speaking, and reinforcing their teacher’s lessons. Those are components, sure.
What we’re doing here is something more ethereal.
I might be sharing stories, but they’re making me more human — we’re becoming known to each other, fond of this time together, excited about the tales and fables.
As I leave, I wonder if ever my kids will go to Mt. Hope someday (it’s a fourth- through sixth-grade building), or if they’d have Mrs. H, the wonderful teacher whose class I visit each time. All these storytelling sessions have done just this: made me step outside my own story long enough to picture myself and my family in other stories going on all around us.
Please, take us with you, we might say. Don’t throw us back to the sea.
*Story adapted from Gianni Rodari’s tale